Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Conan Doyle's The Maracot Deep

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is best remembered today, of course, for the Sherlock Holmes stories. In fact these represented only a fraction of his output as a writer. He wrote a lot of historical fiction, and it was for this that he expected to be remembered. He wrote horror, and he wrote sea stories. He also wrote non-fiction, mostly history. And of course he wrote science fiction, or it might be more accurate to call these books scientific romances. Among these scientific romances was the short novel The Maracot Deep, published in 1929.

The Professor Challenger stories, especially The Lost World, are the best known of his scientific romances. Doctor Maracot, the hero of The Maracot Deep, bears some slight resemblance to Professor Challenger (although without Challenger’s vile temper). 

The Maracot Deep deals not with a lost world of dinosaurs but with a lost civilisation.

The book concerns Maracot’s exploration of the world beneath the sea, using an apparatus long the same lines as a diving bell.  

As so often with Conan Doyle, the character of the story undergoes an abrupt change halfway through. This happens when Maracot and his companions encounter one of the larger and fiercer denizens of the deep ocean, a gigantic crustacean. The encounter has an unfortunate outcome and they find themselves stranded on the ocean floor, and discover a very unexpected world, in fact a civilisation, deep beneath the waves. They soon have reason to believe that this is nothing less than Atlantis.

The inhabitants of this undersea world have incredibly advanced technology. They have however stagnated somewhat, and do not seem to have added much to their store of scientific knowledge in the past two thousand years. On the other hand their technology works, they live comfortable lives and have no particular reason to wish to continue to pursue a never-ending quest for progress.

The tone of the book undergoes another dramatic change later on, a change that almost moves the story into fantasy or gothic horror territory. Conan Doyle did after all write gothic horror stories so perhaps it shouldn’t come as such a shock. He also developed, later in life, a keen interest in spiritualism and related esoteric subjects. The Maracot Deep is a very late Conan Doyle book so it’s not entirely surprising that the story should have some speculative philosophical and spiritual elements.  

The book’s structure is a little odd. It takes the form of four documents that shed light on the mysterious disappearance of a steamer hired by eccentric oceanographer Dr Maracot. The first is a letter from a young American named Cyrus Headley who was acting as an assistant to Maracot. The second is the very strange and very brief final radio message sent by the steamer. The third is an account by the skipper of a Norwegian barque of the discovery of a strange transparent ball floating in the ocean near where the steamer is presumed to have foundered. The fourth and final document was found inside this transparent ball - it is the account written by Cyrus Headley of the strange adventures that befell him along with Dr Maracot and an American engineer after their decent in the diving bell. As a result of this structural choice the narrative is not really what you would call entirely linear. The latter part of the novel becomes quite strange - not what you generally expect from the scientific romance genre. 

Conan Doyle also uses the Atlantis story as a means of introducing some moral speculations. Perhaps the civilisation of Atlantis deserved its fate, or perhaps not. 

Whether the author entirely succeeds in this blending of scientific, historical, moral and spiritual elements might be debatable but it certainly makes this one of his more interesting works.

The Maracot Deep won’t appeal to everyone, but if like me you have a taste for the science fiction of the 19th and early 20th centuries and you aren’t bothered by books that don’t fit neatly into genre pigeonholes then you should get a good deal of enjoyment from it. Recommended.

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